I had no intention of staying in Rome, I’d spend a month at language school before taking myself and my newly acquired command of the Italian language back to Palermo to continue my demented not-very-grand-tour, eat more granita di mandorle and parley with the locals. However as the days got longer and warmer and as May drew to a close it became painfully clear that a month of intensive lessons was no match for my linguistic inaptitude and that never mind chinwagging with the locals, if I was to even scratch the surface of this beauteous but baffling language I was to be here all summer.
Alice on the other hand suffered no such linguistic ineptitude. A month at Centro linguistico Dante Alighieri in the class above me was more than enough to sharpen her vernacular, and off she went in search of work and lessons in the preparation of Puntarelle. Fortunately, even though we’d only talked briefly at school, affinity was felt and we’d exchanged numbers and promises of lunch. And Lunched we did! Sometimes at Volpetti but mostly at Da Augusto In Trastevere, with its cramped confusion of marble-topped tables, rustling paper table cloths, robust Saturnia crockery, offhand service and typically Roman fare.
I’d already begun my education in the distinct, deliciously robust, gutsy Roman cooking at the Trattoria Augustarello in Testaccio. This continued at Da Augusto with Alice. We quickly learned it was best to skip i primi (pasta and minestra) which were better elsewhere, in favour of i secondi (the second courses) which in true Roman style were mostly the more humble cuts of meat and offal cleverly and slowly stewed or braised.
So lunch was braised beef, pecorino dusted tripe, rabbit with rosemary, slow cooked lamb, pollo alla Romana or bollito. Imposing sounding lunches I know, but remember portions of secondi are (usually) small in Italy as they are intended to follow a pasta first course. Having eschewed the pasta we’d feel entitled crowd the table with small plates of contorni (vegetable side dishes) broccoli romanesco cooked until unfashionably soft, deliciously bitter cicoria wilted and tossed with oil, potatoes roasted with rosemary and if the season was right, our favourite, a dish of Puntarelle – the peppery dandelion-like greens dressed with anchovies. Half a litre of questionable white wine and a basket of bread not long out of the oven of the nearby bakery La Renella and we were replete.
Ever since I started this blog and having eaten at Both Augustarello and Da Augusto when he visited, my Brother Ben has been telling – and more recently pestering – me to write about Roman food more, particularly the distinct, bold secondi. Finally, seven years after declaring I ‘d no intention of staying, a respectable number of good, bad and indifferent meals in boisterous trattorias, copious advice, numerous cooking lessons, the birth of a little Roman,and a fair bit of experimenting later, I’m taking his advice! Again. Lets begin with Pollo alla Romana.
Pollo alla Romana or Chicken Roman style, is best described as joints of chicken, fried until golden in olive oil (maybe with a little pancetta) and then simmered with wine, tomatoes and red peppers. It’s a marvelously simple dish which, if made with care and good ingredients, is absolutely delicious. There is a moment of cooking alchemy when the peppers, after a little encouragement and nudging around the pan, release their abundant juices creating a carmine bath in which the chicken can simmer until tender and richly flavored. Then, as the chicken simmers, the juices thicken. The rich complexity of the sweet, rounded, unfashionably oily, deep red sauce by the end of cooking is both a joy to behold and, more importantly, to sop up with bread.
Views, unsurprisingly, about how best to make this stout Roman dish, are passionately held and vary. This version, taught to me by Alice, who was taught by her Roman Boyfriend Leo who was in turn taught by his (formidable sounding) Nonna is, after a fair bit of experimenting, the one I like most. Reassuringly, it is almost identical to the recipe in the dependable tome, my reference book of choice, Le ricette regional Italiane.
It’s all very straightforward. In a heavy pan you fry some diced pancetta in olive oil. Once the pancetta has rendered its fat and made your neighbour question his vegetarianism, you add the chicken pieces skin-side down to the pan and fry until the skin forms a golden crust. Next up salt, several grindings of black pepper the garlic if you so wish and an unruly slosh of wine. Once most of the wine has evaporated you add the roughly chopped tomatoes and the peppers to the pan. It will seem very full! Now put the lid on the pan. You need to keep an eagle eye on the pan for the first 10 minutes, lifting the lid and stirring every now and then to prevent sticking. But once the peppers have released their abundant juices your work is (nearly) done. Half cover the pan, make yourself a Campari and put your feet up while your supper bubbles over a modest flame for another 45 minutes (the odd stir wouldn’t go amiss) or until the tomatoes and peppers have collapsed and reduced into a dense, rich sauce and the chicken is tender.
Serve your pollo alla Romana warm but not hot.
A nice plump chicken is a good place to start. The pancetta is optional but a good addition. The garlic too is optional – keep an eye on it, as if it burns it will be bitter. The peppers can be red, yellow or orange but not green. The wine should be white, dry and rough at the edges. One variation I will note is skinning the peppers before adding them. This means scorching your red lobes and peeling away the thin skin carefully. I don’t, but you might like to.
Pollo alla Romana Chicken Roman Style
- A nice plump chicken weighing about 1.5 kg / 3 lb
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 50 g pancetta, diced (optional)
- salt and pepper
- a plump clove of garlic (optional)
- a glass of dry white wine
- 300 g tomatoes or passata
- 4 large red peppers
Clean the chicken and cut it into 8 eight pieces.
In a large heavy based fry the diced pancetta in the olive oil until it renders its fat. Add the chicken pieces skin side down and cook until the skin forms a golden crust, then turn them and fry the other side.
Add salt, several grindings of black pepper and the garlic and turn the pieces over three or four times. Add the wine and let it bubble away until most of it has evaporated.
Coarsely chop the tomatoes and deseed the peppers and cut them into chunky pieces. Add the tomatoes and the peppers to the pan, stir, cover the pan and leave over a over a modest heat. Keep an eagle eye on the pan for the first 10 minutes, stirring every now and then to prevent sticking. Once the peppers release their juices, half cover the pan and cook for another 45 minutes or until the tomatoes and peppers have collapsed into a dense, rich sauce and the chicken is tender.
Allow the pan to sit for about 15 minutes or better still a couple of hours or overnight (in which case you can just reheat it very very gently over a low flame until it is warm but not hot.) Serve with good bread and a glass of wine.